Chris Van Dusen’s books are fun. Fun words, fun pictures, and, when it comes to If I Built a Car and If I Built a House, fun inspiration for young inventors. I read the former to third graders and then gave them some activities to get their gears turning (get it?) as they designed their own cars.
Pre-Reading: What is STEM? What is STEAM?
I realized I had been doing these making activities with kids, but hadn’t been talking about why. So, I asked my Kaler 3rd graders if they had heard the term STEM before. We have an awesome after school program that highlights STEAM skills, so some of them were able to recall what each letter stood for. Together we got them all (Science Technology Engineering Math), and then added the “A” for Arts. I told them that part of my job was to teach them the tools and skills that go along with STEAM education.
Guided Questions: As I read, I asked the students questions that focused on the design process. This starts where Jack lies on his bedroom floor to plan his car. He studies, draws and re-draws, and looks at examples such as the Weinermobile (a word that is funny to third graders even if they aren’t familiar with the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile).
Then, with each new addition to the car design, I asked students why they thought Jack included it. For example, there is the polymer gel that absorbs crashes; the kids realized he was thinking about safety.
Connections: In one scene, Jack takes his car to the beach where, my students noticed, Mr. Magee was fishing in a little boat. Mr. Magee stars in some of Van Dusen’s other books, and is a big hit with these kids. We talked about other authors, such as Mo Willems, who include characters from one series in another book.
Vocabulary: There’s lots of good vocabulary in this book, such as “submerge” and the aforementioned “polymer.” Kids can typically figure these out from the context.
After reading, I referred back to our STEAM discussion and told them that the tools we would be working on were coding/programming, design-build, and typing. Okay, so typing is a bit of a stretch, but it’s something these guys really need to work on and so I included it at as a station telling my students, “You need to learn to race your fingers over the keys!”
The second station was a Scratch Jr. activity using cars (Challenge: Drive Your Car Across the City). These students had all participated in Code.org’s Hour of Code activities, and I wanted to re-inforce those skills while showing them a different interface. Not surprisingly, the kids made a discovery that I hadn’t anticipated: they could design their own cars as part of the character design.
The final station was LEGO bricks. I’ve received donations from friends and from my principal and now we have a pretty good stash, so the kids were asked to design a car/vehicle using the LEGO pieces and then take a picture of it. The hardest part here was that once they had built a car, they didn’t want to part with it.
In the first week, we got through two stations. When they came back the following week, we jumped right into the third station. Then, I re-read the book. It was a quicker read this time, but there was some time for questions and discussion.
The final activity was a design piece. Each student completed the following slip:
If I Built a Car
by Chris Van Dusen AND __________________________________
My car __________________________________________________________________
__________________________________________If I built a car, that’s just what I’d do!
Before starting, I asked them to reflect on what they had done with the LEGO bricks and Scratch Jr. We also talked about how Jack let his imagination run wild, and they should, too. Some kids echoed what Jack built: cars with pools, cars that flew. Others went in bold new directions, imagining animal cars that let you adopt a new animal each time you went into it or books with libraries (yay!) and maids/tutors who cleaned up after you and taught you so you didn’t have to go to school. Cars with beautiful decorations and room for friends. Cars with places to sleep and cars with turrets like tanks. It was really exciting to see their visions.